PINEHURST, N.C. — Earlier this month President George W. Bush announced a major pull back of U.S. military forces from their overseas posts. Specifically, he told the annual meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, some 60,000 to 70,000 military members and their more than 100,000 family members will return to the United States.
The majority of the forces to be returned stateside are currently stationed in Europe and Asia. Critics of this announcement, to include the Kerry-Edwards presidential ticket, say this is the wrong time to make such a move. Some critics site the global war on terror as the need to keep our forces forward deployed in Europe and Asia. They sense that it is too early to be making such force structure adjustments in this uncertain world. And, of course, there are local host communities, especially in Germany, that fear the lost economic value of having Americans spending money in their towns and cities.
My take is a little different. I do not find it too early to be relocating our military forces. If any thing, it is very late in coming. I spent three years in Japan and another three years in Germany. I also served for a year in Vietnam during the conflict there. About 20 percent of my military service was in foreign countries. I understand the host communities' attachment to the American forces and their families. It is more than economics. There are also many cultural and educational advantages that accrue to both sides. However, national security should be the paramount factor in deciding where to base our military forces.
Times have changed. The land and air threat from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe simply does not exist anymore. There is about zero chance that communist bloc nations with huge ground forces will surge forward through the Fulda Gap and attempt to conquer Germany and other Western European nations. It ain't gonna happen. We should not be fighting the last war -- that is the Cold War.
The threat to our allies and friends in Europe and Asia is no longer large monolithic states with aggression in mind. Today the enemy is terrorism, and the enemy does not possess large standing armies, navies or air forces. The terrorists might be anywhere, at any time, and can strike with little advance notice. As a consequence we should position our forces globally where they can react quickly and swiftly. Presently, that means closer to the threats we are facing in the Middle East.
There are other considerations as well. I remember well from my time in Germany just how difficult and expensive it was to conduct realistic training "in country." The host countries, such as Germany, had very severe restrictions on low level air combat training. They also placed severe restrictions on aircraft noise, such as takeoffs and landings, during nighttime hours. There were very limited ranges available for Army artillery training and tank maneuvers. When air and ground training was taken elsewhere it was at a considerable cost in time and money.
And then there is always the concern about "overflight rights." Each nation controls the airspace above its territory. In April of 1986 we launched F-111s from a base in Great Britain on the raid against Libya (Operation Eldorado Canyon.) The attack aircraft had to circumvent France and spend additional hours airborne, with the potential for a compromise of the operation, as they flew around France enroute to their targets. In our most recent operations in Iraq there was at least one European country that denied overflight rights to our military aircraft. I recall from my days in Europe that Switzerland would only grant overflight rights to our aeromedical evacuation aircraft -- not passenger carrying airlift aircraft, not air refuelers, not fighters, bombers, etc.
Pulling a significant number of troops from Europe, primarily Germany, and from the Republic of Korea does NOT mean the United States has any less resolve in these areas. It does mean that with today's technology, our military forces can bring more lethality to the fight with fewer numbers of troops. For example, an F-15E from Seymour Johnson AFB can deliver more lethality on a given target with one aircraft than we could with a squadron or more in Vietnam. Precision guided munitions fired from today's fighter aircraft are incredibly more effective than the "dumb bombs" of yesteryear.
Marine Gen. James L. Jones, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, talks about "lily pad" basing for the future. By that he sees smaller forward deployed locations with less infrastructure. These locations will serve as jumping off points for potential trouble spots. Smaller forces may be permanently assigned along with pre-positioned equipment, armament, etc. which would be immediately available to our forces. Interestingly, many of the forward deployed troops in Europe likely would be positioned in former Warsaw Pact nations where the costs would be less, and where there would be fewer restrictions on military maneuvers and aerial training. Better training and a more rapid response to trouble spots should result from this 21st century thinking.
On the other side of the globe, the Republic of Korea is infinitely better prepared economically and militarily than it was decades ago during the Cold War. North Korea is, without doubt, a major concern -- a very major concern. Once again though, technology enhancements bring so much more lethality to the fight. Numbers of troops is not the major metric in offshore basing. The type of troops and the capability they possess is the critical metric. Today's military can simply do so much more with fewer people and fewer weapon systems because the technology is simply that much better.
There are domestic concerns in Korea as well as in Europe. Many thoughtful South Koreans do not want the U.S. forces reduced. There are many others who want us out of their life, and especially away from large metropolitan areas such as Seoul. Repositioning some U.S. forces within Korea, and moving others out to locations such as Guam for example, will still allow for a deterrent and a war fighting capability.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the timing of this major force restructuring, we should all keep in mind that it won't happen soon. It will be another year or two before it even kicks in. It will take place over a period of 10 years. We should also note that discussions with the countries currently hosting our forces have been underway for a year or so. This was not a bombshell dropped in the laps of our important allies. I understand there is general agreement among them that the restructuring makes sense; but there is also a reluctance to see it occur for local domestic economic reasons. And there is also the perception in some quarters that we may be signaling a lessened resolve in the security of our allied nations. I don't share that concern. America's national security is enhanced by security abroad. We will be there when needed.